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Legalizing pot makes $900,000 sense

Boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. awoke Tuesday morning as the poster boy for marijuana law reform in Nevada.

“A majority of Nevadans support Julio’s SAFER choice,” the billboard at 2001 Western Ave. proclaims. “Stop driving athletes to DRINK!”

Sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project, which nationally advocates pot’s legalization, the billboard was unveiled Tuesday at a time the state Legislature is taking a serious look at the legal use of pot for medical and even recreational purposes. The state is hardly a leader on this issue. It is, after all, 2013, and most Americans long ago stopped vilifying marijuana’s use.

Chavez is the talented pugilist who suffered his most crippling blow after losing his Sept. 15 title fight in Las Vegas to Sergio Martinez. Chavez tested positive for marijuana, and the Nevada Athletic Commission chose to fine him a staggering $900,000.

Not for running a cartel or smuggling a ton of the stuff up from Tijuana but for smoking a joint nine days before the fight.

Had he been floating on prescription Valium or Xanax, there would have been no harm, foul or fine. But traces of marijuana cost him a bundle and allowed the NAC to crow about its strict regulatory structure.

In a statement, Chavez attorney Donald Campbell said, “In response to the many press inquiries regarding the Marijuana Policy Project’s billboard, we wish to reiterate that our client, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., does not encourage the illicit use of marijuana.

“That having been said, he is, nevertheless, most grateful for the very visible and vocal support of the Marijuana Policy Project as well as that of the many news and sports commentators nationwide who have condemned the unconstitutional, and indeed, draconian fine of $900,000 leveled against him by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for having smoked a marijuana cigarette nine days before the Martinez fight.”

It’s worth noting that Campbell is a former federal Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force prosecutor. He has promised to sue the Nevada Athletic Commission for what he calls an excessive fine.

As it showed in its decision to fine Utimate Fighting Championship competitor Nick Diaz $79,500 after he tested positive for marijuana following a 2011 bout, the NAC isn’t interested in changing with the times. (It’s perhaps the only thing Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and UFC boss Dana White agree on: The Nevada Athletic Commission’s marijuana stance is misguided.)

To say the NAC has invited ridicule with its fines understates the obvious.

Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer declined an interview request, but in an email response said: “I am certainly in favor of public advocacy so I have no desire to chill any group’s use of its free speech rights.

“The drugs prohibited by the NSAC (Nevada State Athletic Commission ) are taken from the list supplied by the World Anti-Doping Agency. … That list is used by most (if not every) legitimate sports commissions. Equally well publicized by the NSAC are the consequences of running afoul of our rules and regulations.

“NSAC licensees know the consequences of their potential violations.”

After announcing the Chavez fine and learning of the promise of litigation earlier this month, Kizer told the Review-Journal’s Steve Carp, “If they want to file suit, fine. We’ll just point out our history of fines, and that it was a discretionary call made within the rules of the commission.”

Kizer’s right about one thing. The NAC can use its discretion.

In 1991, a different group of commissioners used their discretion after junior welterweight champion Greg Haugen tested positive for marijuana use after his first fight against Hector Camacho.

Long before most states were softening their stances on marijuana use, the NAC fined Haugen $25,000 of his reported $150,000 purse after the brawler admitted using marijuana for about 15 years. (Despite his prolific pot use, it was the first time Haugen tested positive in Nevada.)

Haugen was ordered to undergo drug counseling and perform community service. Not suspending Haugen enabled him to fight an entertaining rematch with Camacho a few months later for a $1.2 million purse.

And that was in 1991, not 2001, or even 2011.

In 2013, Kizer’s rhetoric and the Nevada Athletic Commission’s recalcitrance are examples of leading from behind in a changing world.

While the Nevada Legislature examines whether to legalize pot’s use a la Washington and Colorado, and this session in Carson City probably will see the passage of an improved medical marijuana statute, Kizer is content to cling to outdated regulations rather than do the heavy lifting necessary to help the commission adjust with the times.

Although Chavez is the focus of this controversy, he is just a fighter. And fighters come and go.

In the end, it’s the NAC that has made itself the poster boy for marijuana law reform.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Smith

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